Thursday, July 21, 2022

Please Rope Up

Recently there's been an increase in the number of climbers travelling un-roped.  This includes climbers ascending the Emmons glacier to Camp Schurman, coming off rope as they descend the corridor, and even travelling off rope for their entire ascent of the upper mountain. This is extremely ill-advised! Significant hazards are always present in these areas.  With warmer temperatures, the odds of punching through into an unseen crevasse are even higher.

Crevasse falls are surprisingly more common than you would think.  Some parties experience a crevasse fall and a party member gets injured, but they are able to self-rescue back to the surface.  This type of scenario will still trigger a rescue because the patient can no longer walk out. More often, the party does not have the skills (or enough people) to effectively get the party member out of the crevasse.  Many parties think they have trained, but find once the crevasse fall happens in real life, they don't have the equipment or skill or the number of people they need to get their party member out.  Also, imagine when you’re tired, sleep deprived, have cold fingers, and the wind ripping around you AND THEN having to deal with a partner in a crevasse.  On your ascent, you should always keep the crevasse fall potential in mind and have enough of a energy and safety margin to deal with it.  

Climbing rangers wish that they could pass the tragic lessons on to you that many other parties have learned over the years.  One of our ranger’s first body recovery due to a crevasse fall was in 1992 (that’s 30 years ago!) on the Emmons Glacier.  The surviving member of the party wrote a book about his experienced title The Ledge.  And this party was roped up!  During the subsequent three decades there’s been scores of other tragedies and near misses due to climber’s not being prepared to deal with a crevasse fall.  Please take this hazard seriously!  

Climbers next to the crevasses right below Camp Schurman on the Emmons - roping up is advised here.

Ski mountaineers have also been seen travelling un-roped.  When done well by experienced and well-thought-out mountaineers, skiing can mitigate crevasse falls and be a fun, faster, and less exhausting way to get up and down.  However, when it's not done well, it is turning out to ADD risk to many unknowing climber's trips.  The rationale for ski mountaineering in its most simple application is sound.  Having skis on as you cross the glacier distributes your weight over a larger area and this minimizes the potential for falling through an unseen snow bridge.  But, there’s common pitfalls that many skiers don’t anticipate..

Skiers need to have partners and we recommend carrying ropes, too.  To avoid accidents, skiers also should know when to take the skis off and put a rope back on while they ascend or descend!  Ski mountaineers who chose to descend un-roped should carry two separate ropes in their party in order to effectively rescue a partner who has taken a crevasse fall. A ski mountaineer carrying their skis on descent has no flotation advantage from their skis and should act and protect their climb just like any mountaineer.  Skiing down a steep glacier roped-up is not a good idea, nor fun.  So skiers generally un-rope as they ski down. This would not be a big risk if it weren't for two factors: 1) the slope angle, and the 2) surface conditions.  

From 13,500 to 11,000 feet, Mount Rainier is steep, often greater than 35 degrees.  It isn't groomed, of course, and surface conditions are often either rough, broken, or icy.  Because taking skis off is inconvenient, skiers will often attempt to ski through areas of great exposure like a steep corner around a serac with a crevasse below it.  If you haven’t climbed the route you’re about to ski, use extreme caution.  Also, please realize that skiers do fall and every skier has taken a fall, and many times it’s not predictable.  It’s why bindings are manufactured to release.  Simple tumbles, especially in unknown terrain can often be deadly on Mount Rainier.  Skiing off the mountain at these high altitudes isn’t great skiing most days (think survival ski turns) and tumbles often result in uncontrollable falls. Very skilled skiers have been seriously hurt and killed on Mount Rainier.  Don’t plan on your skiing ability to prevent a serious injury or death.  Climbing your ski route, waiting for fortunate conditions, down climbing icy sections, and always having the appropriate rescue equipment is essential.  Skiing is rarely good above 11,500'.  Our best advice is to plan on using normal climbing techniques for ascending AND DESCENDING from and back to this altitude in the summer.

What we've seen lately is befuddling!  Skiers have been walking down un-roped on lower sections of the glacier where it is warm and late in the day.  In the specific places we've seen this happening, it was the worst of all worlds.  No rope, no skis, warm afternoon conditions, and crossing crevasses.

The climbing rangers have had a serious rescues off the upper mountain almost every week.  Crevasse falls are a major cause of these rescues.  Please think about removing these commons errors from your scenario that will keep you from falling in in the first place.

Please rope up while on glaciers!  It is always the crevasse that you’re not planning on falling into that causes the most problems.